What do "Death" and "Life-in-Death" stand for in Coleridge's The Rime of Ancient Mariner?
The mariner kills the albatross and the crew eventually decides that the mariner is to blame for all their thirst, so they make him wear the albatross. (This is where the concept of “albatross as a burden” comes from).By killing the albatross, a symbol of purity and the Christian soul, the mariner has offended God and nature. In the Romantic and Transcendental philosophies, there was an inherent connection between nature and spirit; connected via the Imagination. On the surface, this sounds like an animal rights poem, but Coleridge was making a Christian/Romantic statement that harming nature is harming ourselves as all are interconnected.
So, all these supernatural events are caused by the mariner’s senseless killing of the albatross/symbol of Christian soul. They eventually pass a ship. This is right after they make the mariner wear the dead albatross around his neck; his cross to bear. On the ship they pass, Death (actually representing death) and Life-in-Death (representing suffering in life) are playing dice. They were betting for the lives or souls of the men. Death won all the men – they all dropped dead. Death-in-life won the mariner and he subsequently has led a life full of suffering because his killing of the albatross led to the death of his men. But the impression is that the death of the albatross is the initial crime and as offensive as the men’s deaths.
It is clear that these two spectres that appear on the ship and play a chilling game of dice for the life of the Mariner represent what their names say they are. Death represents complete death, and Life-in-Death represents a state of death that exists in life, that the Mariner has to suffer because Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, whereas Death wins the life of the sailors, resulting in their deaths. Note how they are described:
Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman's mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.
Clearly focusing on their descriptions, and in particular the description of Life-in-Death, shows they are deeply suggestive of what these figures represent. The fact that Life-in-Death wins the Mariner, and the way that we are presented with how the Mariner lives--doomed to wander the world and share his story thanks to an uncontrollable compulsion--shows the life-in-death that he has to endure as his punishment.
check Approved by eNotes Editorial